The Rise of the Metric

As June approaches, we brace ourselves for the annual onslaught that is the Leaving Cert. We will hear all the usual arguments about how inadequate it is, how it stresses out students, how it rewards rote learning and how it reduces young people to a points score. But when you think about it, the CAO score is just another example of the Rise of the Metric.

In academia, we are obsessed with metrics; from the h-index, to citation rates to impact factors to numbers of papers published, to PhDs ‘produced’, to grant income earned; and now to blog hits, and even Twitter followers. We have an obsessive need to quantify everything. This permeates into policy-making where initiatives have become entirely metric-driven. Thus we set goals like reducing the number of Third Level Institutions, or the number of faculties and departments, or the number of PhD graduates, rather than actually dealing with core quality issues themselves.

Furthermore, academic staff are rated almost entirely on the basis of metrics. Promotions are granted on the basis of a scoring system with marks given for research, teaching and ‘engagement’. While ostensibly fair and transparent, this is a remarkably unsubtle way of assessing academics, especially their potential for future roles in leadership and management. Indeed it is interesting to contrast the way we promote people in academia with the way large companies recruit even young graduates. The commercial sector is miles ahead of us in terms of its sophistication and it is no wonder that universities often have problems with the quality of their management. The promotions policy, which is metric-driven, backs the system into a corner where the pool of potential leaders (e.g. Senior Lecturers) is filled with excellent (in their own way) but completely unsuitable candidates.

Now, academic staff must account for their time by filling out an abomination called the Academic Activity Profile. This is something that gives the illusion of rigour but a spreadsheet of guesses just amounts to a guess. Everyone knows that the AAP is, to be frank, a load of crap, but the important thing is that we generate lots of numbers. We all know that assessing what academics do really requires a much more sophisticated and subtle approach but we carry on regardless, convincing ourselves of the value of the Metric. (None of this is to suggest that we shouldn’t be accountable but accountability is best achieved by having competent managers in place and that means that we are in chicken-and-egg territory.)

I suppose you could argue that all of this is an inevitable consequence of the digital age and our ability to manipulate large amounts of data. But, nonetheless, I think the obsession with metrics is a capitulation. We know that many of the problems we are grappling with are highly complex, perhaps unsolvable, and so we create the illusion that we are tackling them effectively.

Let’s take an example like the current obsession with tidying up the third level education system. This is no more than a numbers game. It is assumed that if we reduce the number of institutions, we will make a better, more cost-effective system. But this is just lazy thinking – it is by no means clear how merging institutions and clustering them might make the system better or even more efficient. There is absolutely no rigorous, step-by-step analysis as to how the numbers-driven process of merging institutions will make the actual educational experience better for the student or even how it will make the system more cost-effective. Yes, we can talk vaguely about critical masses and centres of excellence but how do these things affect the core interaction between the lecturer and the students? The reality is that we don’t know. What we should be doing is looking at things like the quality of the learning environment, the workloads of staff and the factors affecting student motivation. But the rise of the Metric continues.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to The Rise of the Metric

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The Rise of the Metric

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